As important as sleep is to how well we perform at work, in the gym, and between the sheets, it's a shame it's always getting shafted. About 50-70 million Americans suffer from a sleep or wakefulness disorder, clipping the amount of time they spend in deep sleep, according to the CDC.
This slow-wave sleep is absolutely crucial for physical restoration, while rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, a lighter stage, is essential for restoring mental clarity and alertness. And, while both are important, a helpful strategy is to focus on “solid, unbroken sleep” overall, says J. Todd Arnedt, Ph.D., associate professor and director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Michigan.
Your goal should be to get three or more nights per week of unbroken sleep, he says. Anything less and you should consult your doctor. “There are safe and effective medication and non-medication treatments available to help,” Arnedt says.
Here, we highlight 10 natural ways to get your sleep on the right track.
Organize your sleep environment so it feels comfortable for you, but keep it quiet and dark with a “generally cooler” temperature, says Arnedt. Stick to about 65-75 degrees Fahrenheit. This range is backed by research and ensures you won't wake sweating or shivering in the middle of the night.
As for a particular fabric for the bed, or pillow style, it’s an individual choice rather than a scientific conclusion, he suggests. “In my experience, people have to figure out what works for them personally,” Arnedt says.
“Caffeine doesn’t allow you to get into deep sleep,” says Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist and author of The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan: Lose Weight Through Better Sleep. “It keeps you in the lighter stages of sleep.”
To avoid the “sleep-dampening” effects of caffeine, which has a half-life of 8 to 10 hours, shut down caffeine intake after 2 p.m.
If you have your last cup of joe at 2 p.m., figure you can go to bed by 10 p.m., says Breus.
Exercise will take a couple of months to positively affect your sleep, but a regular routine will help, according to Breus. Vigorous exercise led to better sleep for twice as many respondents in the National Sleep Foundation’s 2013 "Sleep in America" poll. However, don’t exercise more than two hours before bedtime, says Breus.
Meanwhile, meditation may help treat insomnia, according to a 2009 study by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. “Practice effective stress-management strategies,” such as meditation or relaxation exercises, advises Arnedt.
A relaxing rinse under hot water increases your core body temperature and can improve your sleep—especially if it’s 90 minutes before bedtime, says Breus.
“That drop in core body temperature [once you're out of the shower] is a signal to produce melatonin,” says Breus. Known as the "Dracula of hormones," melatonin makes you sleepy and regulates sleep and wake cycles.
Stressful topics less than an hour or two before bedtime can affect deep sleep, according to Breus.
If you’re lying in bed with your girlfriend when she tells you she cheated on you with your best friend, you’re obviously going to get crappy sleep because that’s all you’re going to think about, Breus says. Hash things out in the light of day instead.
Consider using a sleep shield on your mobile device to control the amount of light you’re exposed to before bed, advises Breus.
“It filters out that wavelength of light that affects your circadian rhythm,” he says. Circadian rhythms are changes to a person’s environment that affect sleep-wake patterns. Products on the market include the Sleep Shield, which places a transparent polyethylene terephthalate (PET) coating over your mobile device to reduce the amount of blue light that interferes with melatonin production.
“What most people don’t realize is that while alcohol makes you feel sleepy, it also keeps you out of the deeper stages of sleep,” says Breus. The human body needs an hour to metabolize one alcoholic beverage, he says.
“If you have two drinks, then you shouldn’t go to bed for 2 hours; if you have 3 drinks, then you shouldn’t go to bed for 3 hours,” advises Breus.
“If you’re a smoker, you should quit but if you’re not going to quit, you shouldn’t smoke for probably an hour and a half before bed,” Breus says. “Smoking before bed can affect your ability to reach deeper stages of sleep.”
Nicotine can prolong the amount of time it takes you to fall sleep (called a longer sleep onset latency) and result in lighter stages of sleep, reveals the 2006 study “Cigarette Smoking and Nocturnal Sleep Architecture” from the American Journal of Epidemiology.
If you suffer from snoring or choking during the night, get it treated, Breus advises. Treatment methods include sleep machines to help you breathe at night, or a mouth guard that moves your jaw forward, he says.
“And then there’s surgery, which I don’t recommend,” says Breus.
Several mobile apps help track your sleep to provide insight on what may wake you up at night. The best apps have a hardware component like the Jawbone Up wristband, Nike FuelBand or Beddit’s ultrathin film sensor that goes under your sheet.
An app that just tracks movement may not be completely accurate, Breus notes.
“All it’s doing is monitoring movement,” he says. “If you stop moving, it might claim that you’re awake.”